R3 CD review chose this disc today as the best version of these Handel concertos. They nearly always choose the latest version of rare repertoire and its hard to blame them in this case, as the Freibourgers turn in the sort of stylish ebullient performances one might expect; but what the reviewer (who also wrote the liner notes for this CD) did not mention is that there are only 48 minutes of music here - half an hour spare on a full-price disc in other words. The recording was made four years ago, so I suspect that Harmonia Mundi were waiting for an appropriate filler which failed to materialise.
This would not matter if some rare masterpiece were getting a tremendous outing, but these concertos are minor (if jolly) Handel, and there are several other equally decent performances much better filled. For example: the Canadian band Tafelmusik did an excellent disc of the concertos together with the whole Fireworks Music in 1997 - and then there's always the 2fer of Hogwood's performances of the Water Music, Fireworks Music (and these concertos) which you can get for less than the price of this single CD: Hogwood's recordings from the 1980's still sound very well.
Let the buyer beware!
The concertos date from the 1740's, assembled by Handel as interval fillers for his later oratorios. I say "assembled" because the music is almost entirely recycled; indeed its main interest for modern listeners is the fun of hearing favourite numbers from "Messiah" in orchestral arrangement. The old editions called them "a due cori" (not Handel's title). Some (including the Freibourgers) take this to mean "for two orchestras" – but this is to misunderstand what Handel was up to. He wrote the concertos for his theatre band at Covent Garden, putting two groups of wind and brass on the stage behind it so all the to-and-fro of the music could be seen as well as heard, no doubt to the pleasure of the audience. Indeed it's possible that the wind groups stayed on the stage for the whole oratorio: the chorus was fairly small and would not have filled the space, even allowing for an organ in the centre. So these works were always theatrical, intended as pure entertainment and work well in that spirit.
Handel's three richly-scored 'concerti a due cori' are among his most satisfying and enjoyable orchestral pieces. For this recording, the excellent period-instrument Freiburger Barockorchester, directed by Gottfried von der Goltz and Petra Müllejans, have roped in a few extra players so as to give these splendid concerti the full works, with oboes, bassoons and four horns as well as the usual strings and continuo amounting to around 40 players in all.
The result is quite outstanding, with the players from the very start revelling in Handel's rich orchestral textures and in tempi both vigorous and majestic. The composer commandeered a few of the movements from his oratorios; in case you're not familiar with these works I won't spoil the fun by naming all the transcriptions, but they do result in some surprising, foot-tapping delights. Together with the original instrumental movements, they all add up to a feast of catchy Handelian melodies in richly rewarding scoring. The work of the oboe and horn players is especially impressive, but in truth players and directors all do a splendid job.
Recorded sound is superb, and Simon Heighes' vividly descriptive booklet notes add still more to our enjoyment. The disc has competition from a small handful of other recordings, headed by a version of the same three works by another fine early-music ensemble, Zefiro, who also include the Royal Fireworks Music. Zefiro use a smaller number of players but they attack the works with equal gusto. Their disc is more generous in time since it also includes the Fireworks and brings us more than an hour of music, compared to the Freiburgers who offer shorter measure at 49 minutes.
Altogether, however, I wouldn't miss the spirited performance and rich textures of the present recording for anything – it's rollicking baroque entertainment, resulting in pretty well the most fun Handel enthusiasts could possibly have with their clothes on.